Sally Lesh & Hyde Gate

Hyde Gate, Essex, New York (Illustration by Kate Boesser for All My Houses, By Sally Lesh)
Hyde Gate, Essex, NY (Illustration by Kate Boesser for All My Houses, by Sally Lesh)

One of the unanticipated joys of living at Rosslyn (aka Hyde Gate) has been discovering the property’s legacy. Prior to purchasing our home, neither my bride nor I had ever stopped to consider the impact that these four buildings clustered along the shore of Lake Champlain might have had on others before us.

One recent reminder was the first chapter of All My Houses in which octogenarian Sally Lesh chronicles her itinerant life story by way of the many homes in which she has resided. Published in 2005, Lesh’s memoir is available online and — if luck’s on your side — at your neighborhood bookstore where the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, the sedative shuffling of pages and the muffled whispering of customers might transport you to wintry Essex, New York by way of Boston, Massachusetts.

Hyde Gate, Essex, New York

Lesh opens the memoir with her birth on Janurary 19, 1921 in Boston, but the title of her first chapter and the origin of the journey she intends to chronicle is Hyde Gate, Essex, New York. This quirky collection of reminiscences is not altogether unlike a literary charm bracelet. Though, it is a bit longer than a bracelet… Is there such a thing as a charm necklace? In any case, the back cover blurb promises plenty of shiny if slightly tarnished charm.

Meet Sally Lesh, mother of eight, (descendant from Royalty), traveler from New England to bush Alaska, Inn keeper, cow milker, weaver, ferry steward, farmer, wife to a doctor, and author of Lunch at Toad River. Read her down-to-earth life story spanning 84 years full of ingenuity, humor, independence, and a love of life as it unfolds. (All My Houses a Memoir)

The first charm on Lesh’s necklace is Hyde Gate, Rosslyn by a different name. Though her memory falters when describing the home’s fabrication, the illustration and subsequent description make it abundantly clear that our journeys have overlapped not in time but in place.

My parents, Sarah “Sally” Carter Townsend and Ingersoll Day Townsend were living in Essex, New York, on the shore of Lake Champlain. The property was known as Hyde Gate, and it extended from the water’s edge well back into the meadows and woods. The house was nicely proportioned wood frame building. A veranda ran across the front and around the two sides, giving a gracious and welcoming aspect. The house exterior was painted yellow with white trim, except for the big front door. That was dark green. A long flight of wide steps led up to the veranda and the main entrance…

I never found out what those nine servants did in that large house. I know about Nana, and there must have been a laundress to handle the piles of sheets, towels, tablecloths, napkins, baby clothing, and Bobby’s little cotton outfits. I’m sure there was a cook, because Mother couldn’t even boil water. There had to have been a yard man or gardener, for everything that came to the table was grown in our garden. And there must have been at least two maids to clean. Mother wouldn’t have known what a dust mop was, let alone how to use it. That makes five. What on earth did three more do?

Directly across the road, ice was cut every winter from the frozen lake surface. All these years later, I can picture the huge square hole full of dark water where the big blocks of ice had been cut by men using long saws. Each block was then hauled out. I have no idea how the block of ice was carried up the steep rocky bank and across the road, up the sloping driveway past the house, past the big barn that houses the carriage and the car, and finally to the icehouse, where it was buried in sawdust. We had iceboxes then, no refrigerators. The ice was broken into square chunks that fit neatly into the tin-lined top compartment of the icebox. I do clearly recall picking tiny bits of sawdust out of my summertime lemonade throughout my childhood. (All My Houses a Memoir, by Sally Lesh)

A year later, Lesh explains in the second chapter, Hyde Gate was sold. It had been owned by her grandmother, Louisa Johnson Townsend, who also owned the Stone House in Essex (where Sally’s family moved next) as well as a seasonal camp on Lake Champlain and “a large old house in Oyster Bay on Long Island, next to Theodore Roosevelt’s home, and a place with a banana tree in New Orleans”. A well healed granny by the sound of it!

Sticks or Bricks? Hyde Gate Remembered…

It’s worth noting that the house was constructed out of brick (with stone foundations) and not wood. But this detail — like the soft math when recollecting the number and function of servants — matters little and reveals the patina-ing power of time’s passage. The other notable difference between Hyde Gate as Lesh describes it and Rosslyn as she stands today is that the veranda has been removed, revealing an older — and most likely original — stone stairway and entrance. The owner from whom we purchased the property undertook this alteration in a nod to historic authenticity. He too felt obliged to leave his imprint on the front facade of the house and erected a Greek Revival columned entrance roof which incorporates subtle Georgian detailing which I’ll share in a subsequent post.

Hyde Gate Gardens-to-Table

This weekend I will transplant tomatoes, eggplants, pepper plants and artichokes into our own garden which accounts for much of the what graces our dining table during the summer and fall each year. Rhubarb and asparagus have been coming in for weeks, and the strawberry patch is currently covered in blossoms. Fruit trees, bushes, brambles and vines add to the Rosslyn harvest, and an attractive herb garden close to the kitchen fortifies our recipes and intoxicates our nostrils whenever it rains or the wind blows out of the south. Almost a century after Sally Lesh’s brief sojourn at Hyde Gate, a gastronomic connection to the land endures. But the ice house has long since surrendered its critical warm weather role, and the apiculture which occupied her father (he sold five tons of honey per year) has vanished.

With luck we’ll returning to beekeeping some day in the future, if for no other reason than to improve the pollination in our small orchard. And honey, fresh out of the comb? Divine. I’m adding it to the wish list. Right after ducklings

Acknowledgments

Although it would have been wonderful indeed to stumble upon this memoir quite by accident only to discover my home on the first page, I feel equally fortunate to have been guided by my Essex neighbor Tilly Close who showed me the book last summer. She knew the author and suggested that I dip into the property’s legacy from a fresh perspective. Thank you, Mesdames Lesh and Close.

About virtualDavis

A writer, storyteller and unabashed flâneur, George Davis (aka virtualDavis or G.G. Davis, Jr.) is the author of Rosslyn Redux: Reawakening a home, a dream and ourselves, a transmedia chronicle about rehabilitating an historic property in the Adirondacks with his bride. He blogs about storytelling, poetry, doodling, marginalia, flânerie, publishing, and other creativity-inspired esoterica at virtualDavis.com; posts sometimes exhilarating, often unnerving, occasionally euphoric, and always pollyanna "midlife mashups" at 40x41.com; chronicles his sailing adventures (and misadventures) at Sailing Errant; and delves into matters of parenting, babylandia, and childfreedom at Why No Kids? George formerly taught and coached at Santa Fe Preparatory School and The American School of Paris, and he co-founded and launched Maison Margaux: "Paris à la parisienne" in Faubourg Saint-Germain. He currently owns and operates Adobe Oasis in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his bride. George meanders on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr.
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8 Responses to Sally Lesh & Hyde Gate

  1. Pingback: Hiatus Interruptus | virtualDavis

  2. Sally McLaughlin says:

    While researching some geneology on my mother’s father’s side (Ingersoll Day Townsend) I ran across this entry. I am Sally Lesh’s daughter and I live in Gustavus, Alaska where she lived until she died in October 2011. Such fun to run across little gems such as this on the Internet! Some day I hope to revisit some of her homes and Hyde Gate/Rosslyn is high on the list!

    • virtualDavis says:

      What luck! I’m thrilled that you discovered this post about your mother’s former house(s) in Essex, and I’m DOUBLY thrilled that you reached out and connected. That said, I’m saddened to discover that your mother passed away a little over a year. I had hoped to seek her out and ask her questions about her time in Essex and about the two homes where she resided. I have the impression that your mother lived an adventurous life, and — if her memoir is any indication — I imagine she must have been a magnificent storyteller. I do hope that you’ll visit Essex one day to see two of the wonderful historic homes that where she resided. Rosslyn, where my bride and I have lived for a little over three years, is the protagonist of this blog, the book and my stage performances, Redacting Rosslyn. It would bring me great pleasure to meet you if/when you visit Essex.

      • Sally McLaughlin says:

        Thanks! Last year just after she died my dad and I went to Mexico together. Just before getting on the plane a friend gave me a book to read that she had just finished and thought I would enjoy due to my passion for gardening and living off the land. The book was The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball and imagine my surprise to discover it took place in Essex. It was a book my mom would have loved, no matter where it took place and I loved reading it as it was a strong connection and kept her in my thoughts as we traveled.
        I don’t get to the east coast often but would love to plan a trip there. I’ll keep in touch!

      • virtualDavis says:

        Sometimes the universe rhymes, and it seems you have a knack for picking up on it! When we first moved to Essex we were members of Essex Farm, and reading Kristin Kimball’s weekly farm notes when we picked up our shares on Friday was our favorite part. I enjoyed reading the book, but wished for a digital version where I could click through to the “long format” stories that she’d told over time. A couple of years ago we swapped to Full and By Farm, run by Sara Kurak and James Graves (offshoots from Essex Farm), and I would say that these exciting agricultural/food sources are a major contributing factor to our satisfying North Country life. Curious indeed that books brought us together in these two delightful ways. Thanks for sharing your story!

      • Sally McLaughlin says:

        Yes that is amazing! Thanks for sharing that with me. I love the small world connections one can make.

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